The birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the sea. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!
(Psalm 8:8,9 KJV)
One of the most moving spiritual sagas is that of St. Francis of Assissi and his memorable sermon to the birds. After spotting a flock of birds, St. Francis preached his famous sermon, exhorting them to praise their Creator and always love Him. In response, the birds spread their wings, stretched their necks and gazed lovingly at the priest. After blessing them with the sign of the cross, St. Francis went on his way. After that experience, he made it a habit to preach daily to his feathered friends.
While St. Francis preached to the birds, my mother, Ellen, by contrast, was a student of the birds. When life on the farm was challenging and lonely, she received hope and comfort from them.
Here is my mother, in March, 1936, on her first day on the farm, just back from a honeymoon to the Wisconsin Dells. Dressed in her new housedress and freshly-starched apron, she is in the kitchen fixing breakfast for Henry, who has risen early to milk the cows.
“Her sense of excitement and exuberance shifted to a twinge of uncertainty and doubt as she looked at the bleak, foreboding scene through the kitchen window.
Suddenly a flash of red flew past the window. Ellen noticed a male cardinal perched on a limb in the yard, his shebird a few branches up. A pair of cardinals, she thought, a pair, just like Henry and me. The sight of the birds lifted her spirits. Henry would be home soon. He would make everything right. She loved him with all her heart. He was a farmer so she would be his farmwife. Well, a housewife who lives on the farm, she thought. Somehow that seemed better.
Ellen started the coffee, set the sausages sizzling and whipped the pancake batter into a froth. Henry would be home soon. He would be hungry. She had better get busy fixing his breakfast. Ellen’s life on the farm had begun.”
(In the Garden, pg. 23)
Ellen and Henry’s life was founded on the Word of God and prayer. Daily they found guidance and sustenance for the cares and challenges of ekeing out a living on the farm, by reading God’s promises and walking and talking with their Lord in prayer; however, their faith took on personal meaning and significance in the great out-of-doors, as they performed their daily chores. Much of their time was spent outside, plowing, weeding, harvesting crops, picking and snipping beans from the garden and, when time permitted, taking drives through the countryside.
Their spirits became one with nature – the wheat waving gently in the wind, the roses lifting their faces to the sun’s rays, dewdrops glinting in the early morning sunshine, raindrops pelting boldly from the sky, a chickadees cheerfully singing its name, “chick – a dee-dee-dee,” and sparrows frantically chasing each other through the bushes in the front yard – indeed they became one with the very soil of the farm itself.
Ellen’s relationship with birds grew beyond her initial fascination with their beauty, and their ability to fly and sing, and took on an almost mystical quality. She, like the poets of the early nineteenth century, came to appreciate these avian flyers as symbols of imaginative freedom in their flight and for the full-throated ease of their singing. Here she is in the front yard, hanging out the wash.
“On a crisp Monday morning in mid-April, Ellen had pinned her last bed sheet on the clothesline, when a black-capped chickadee came and perched on a branch overhead, trilling its little heart out.
‘Oh you beautiful little creature,’ Ellen called. Something about that plump little bird lifted her spirits and gave her a burst of hope like the cardinals had done for her earlier.
She felt a deep longing within – it seemed to come from the depths of her being, from her soul. It was an awakening to nature and the power of birds singing, trees budding, breezes blowing and clothes flapping in the wind. It was then she knew there was a power beyond all that she could see, smell hear and feel.
She had learned about God in church and Sunday School and had publicly professed her faith when she was eighteen. She and Henry, in their wedding vows, had promised to make God the foundation of their home.
But now, in a bird’s song, she experienced the God of creation and revelation in her heart. God was in the bird’s song, the budding of the trees, the cooling refreshing breeze and the tulips blooming by the side of the house. She didn’t have to worry about her new life or feel lonely or isolated when Henry left to do his chores about the farm. With God’s help she could become the housewife she wanted to be for Henry. She felt strangely moved – changed. Ellen had experienced a moment out of time – a kairos moment.
(In the Garden, pgs. 27,28)
What lessons did Ellen learn from the chickadee, the cardinals and the other birds which nested nearby, ate at the feeders Henry set out, picked at the ear of corn nailed to the maple tree out front, and flitted about in the shrubs and bushes?
- Lesson 1. Her true nature –
Just as birds express their true natures and go through life perfectly themselves, without knowing anything of the worry and anxiety that warp so many human lives, so Ellen came to the realization that she, though on an infinitely higher plane of creation then her avian friends, was created in the image of God and thus her true nature was spiritual. She adapted herself to her true element, as a spiritual being, as the birds adapted to their true elements of flying and singing. The freedom and joy, so apparent in birds, were meant t0 be her birthright as well.
“Behold the fowls of the air; for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?”
(Matthew VI KJV)
- Lesson 2. Flying –
“…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23)
Ellen has just taken down a load of bedding from the line and carrying her clothes basket back to the house for ironing and folding. Her basket is not the only load she is carrying. Last evening, a strong windstorm came through the farm and ruined the entire cherry crop. Henry is devastated. Not only has he lost his crop, he will have to pay to have the cherries picked, or next year’s crop will be stunted on the trees. They needed the money for food, medical bills and upcoming school clothes for their six children. Ellen is pregnant again and she senses something is wrong with this baby. She just doesn’t feel right.
Suddenly, she notices an eagle soaring overhead. It circles round and round and then hovers in the air, perhaps waiting for an updraft. Ellen is mesmerized. She sets her basket down and watches in fascination. Suddenly, the tightness in her breast, like a brace of birds, broke free. It was as though she glimpsed Heaven beyond the circling eagle. She was enveloped with the presence of God, Himself. She dropped her basket and fell to her knees. She had known Heaven as her future home, but now it was present with her here, on earth, on the farm, on the back lawn of the house on the hill. The voices of her children in the yard brought her back to reality. She got up, picked up her load and continued on her way to the house. Only now, she walked with a lighter step, as though she had one foot on the earth and one in heaven.
Ellen’s encounter with the eagle remained with her throughout her days on the farm, helping to put the cares and challenges of each day in perspective. God was in charge. She was His faithful and obedient servant. Her future was secure and happy. This realization didn’t mean that Ellen stopped working, doing or praying. Indeed it has been said that it is no good praying for something unless one works for it with one’s entire being. But now her working had a dimension of lightness to it that was not there before. She would do the work – the result was in God’s hands, until the day she would “fly away” home.
“At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it.” (Revelation 4:2)
- Lesson 3. Singing -a symbol of hope and joy
If a bird’s flight had lifted Ellen’s thoughts beyond Earth to Heaven, it was the full-throated ease of a bird’s song that enabled her to experience the joy that was her birthright as a child of God.
Though there is no bird more noted for the full-throated ease of singing, than the nightingale, (it’s mostly the male bird that’s known for its melodic singing, as many as a thousand songs, usually at night, to woo the female during mating season), it is the skylark, whose melody best embodies the mystical quality birdsong held for Ellen.
In his poem, “To a Skylark,” Shelley expresses the irrepressible charm of this “blithe spirit”:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Imagine standing in a field near dawn, listening to birdsong pouring down from the sky for two minutes or four, a very long time, as the singer rises, hovers, swoops above you, often visible only as a speck in the blue. Finally he plummets to the ground and is lost to view.
The bird sings not from a perch but while flying, so the song emerges from the sky above, as the night flees and the first glow of dawn appears. It becomes associated with all the possibilities of a new day, the freshness of dawn, the light banishing darkness.
In this stanza, Shelley draws particular attention to the skylark’s two worlds, sky and earth. It soars, sings, then drops to a point unseen on the ground where mate and nest have remained.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
The skylark’s song generally lasts 2 to 3 minutes, quite long by birdsong standards, and is often even longer later in the season. What a great effort is put forth by this bird (which weighs only 30-45 g), singing continuously while he is zooming up into the air, holding steady aloft, and plummeting down!
Shelley goes on to compare it to a lonely maiden in a palace tower, who uses her song to soothe her lovelorn soul. It is like a golden glow-worm, scattering light among the flowers and grass in which it is hidden. It is like a rose embowered in its own green leaves, whose scent is blown by the wind until the bees are faint with “too much sweet.” The skylark’s song surpasses “all that ever was, /, Joyous and clear and fresh,” whether the rain falling on the “twinkling grass” or the flowers the rain awakens. Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
A visitor to the great plain of Salisbury, recounted his experience at hearing a skylark for the first time:
“From the contentment of her lowly nest in the grass, the songstress rose on quivering wings, pouring out a flood of perfect joy. With infinite courage the feathered atom breasted the spaces of the sky, as if her music lifted her irresistibly skyward. With sublime confidence she passed out of sight into the azure; but not out of hearing for her cheerful voice fell yet more sweetly through the distance, as if it were saying, ‘Forever, forever.'” (The Story of the Psalms, Henry Van Dyke)
Though Ellen would never have heard a nightingale or a skylark, for neither is found in North America, she was surrounded with birds on the farm. In her darkest moments and challenges, their full-throated melodies lifted her spirits heavenward. In their trillings, she came to know the truth of her Lord’s words:
“So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (John 16:22)
Note: The memoir, In the Garden, portrays the author’s mother, Ellen, an ordinary woman, who became extraordinary by surrendering her will and ego to the will of God at every crossroads of her life. She chose faith over doubt, acceptance over resignation, hope instead of despair. “Not my will, but Thy will be done,” was her mantra. After marrying the love of her life, Henry, Ellen lived her entire life in a house, on the hill, on a farm in west Michigan(the site of present day Country Dairy)rooting herself in the place where she believed God had planted her. There she found her calling as a helpmeet and homemaker. She transformed the house on the hill into a place of beauty and sanctuary for their family.
In Hoeing “In the Garden,” the author revisits her mother’s story, cultivating and digging up tidbits of truth to provide inspiration and encouragement for the challenges of her life.